Extracting oil from Alberta's tar sands jeopardizes the survival of our species, says Al Gore.
"Gas from the tar sands gives a Prius the same carbon footprint as a Hummer," the former U.S. vice-president told the Star in an interview prior to a Toronto speaking engagement scheduled for Tuesday evening.
"I know that doesn't make me popular in Alberta," said the jet-hopping environmental activist, best known for the movie and book An Inconvenient Truth.
"But it's simply a fact. A lot of money is at stake, but a lot of lives and the future of human civilization are also at stake."
If Gore's warnings are heeded, expect housing prices to fall fast and far in Fort McMurray, the northern Alberta boomtown where single-family dwellings sold for a reported average of $629,582 in October thanks to the Athabasca tar sands megaproject.
If not, then you might as well pack your bags for Armageddon, because that is where Gore believes the planet is headed unless humankind radically shifts from carbon-based fuels. Time is short, he warns, and political will in the United States and elsewhere is lagging far behind what's needed.
The U.S. Senate has yet to pass a bill setting tough limits on carbon emissions, for example, something that should have been done by now, according to a prediction Gore makes in his newly released book, a blueprint for planetary salvation titled Our Choice.
Meanwhile, a global conference on climate change, set for Copenhagen early next month, is no longer expected to produce breakthrough agreements restricting the pumping of greenhouse gases into the planet's atmosphere, a practice that continues at what Gore regards as a catastrophic pace.
"Is it disappointing?" he said. "Yes. The pace of negotiations has been slow this year. The stark truth is, at present, the maximum we can imagine to be politically possible still falls far short of the minimum necessary to solve the crisis. We put 90 million tons of CO² into the atmosphere every 24 hours, and the amount is increasing decade by decade. It's not okay."
Still, as he surveys a planet in crisis, Gore also sees reason for optimism. The U.S. House of Representatives has moved to curb carbon emissions, narrowly passing a bill this summer that Gore calls "a very solid first step, if not as tough as I would like."
Republicans have mostly been absent from efforts to draft legislation limiting carbon emissions, but at least one prominent Republican senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has joined the fight and is encouraging others to follow his lead.
And Gore says emerging industrial powers, including Brazil, China and India, are now seriously addressing the challenges of global warming.
"The world is in the early stages of a massive shift away from carbon-based fuels," Gore said. "Slowly but surely, leaders around the world are coming to grips with the fact it would be extremely irresponsible to impose this burden on future generations."
In his new book, Gore explores what sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar power can do to wean humankind from oil and coal, while also creating economic wealth. He is far more skeptical about other vaunted solutions, including nuclear energy and carbon-capture and storage, both of which he regards as uneconomic.
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If world leaders follow his blueprint for action, Gore foresees a future that seems almost too good to be true – a planet humming on abundant supplies of clean, affordable energy, achieved at little or no net cost to global prosperity or employment.
In a recent interview, the man who nearly became U.S. president in 2000 conceded the outlook is somewhat more complex, but said he is not sugar-coating the future in order to make it politically palatable.
"Inevitably, a transition like this will advantage and disadvantage some more than others," he said. "But I don't believe it's sugar-coating to say our civilization will be more prosperous and better off."
In his campaign to save the environment, Gore has encountered plenty of critics, many of whom insist the environment is not in need of saving. Some question his use of scientific evidence.
Gore dismisses much of the opposition he faces as "artificially created by large carbon polluters."
Other global-warming deniers might be sincere, he says, but they're wrong.
"Because this crisis is so unprecedented, it triggers the natural tendency we all have to confuse the unprecedented with the improbable."
As for the Athabasca megaproject, Gore has derided Western Canada's oil-sands developments before. In a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, he called such projects "crazy."
"They have to tear up four tons of landscape, all for one barrel of oil. It is truly nuts. But, you know, junkies find veins in their toes."
By one estimate, Canada's vast oil-sands petroleum reserves provide the country with 15 per cent of the world's oil supply, a share exceeded only by Saudi Arabia.
Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Gore is on the road these days promoting his new book.
Despite its title – Our Choice – Gore argues that humans really have no option but to stop treating the atmosphere as "an open sewer."
"It sounds absurdly difficult," he said, "but we really have no choice."